Lower part of the steel sculpture in the town of Amboise, where Emir Abdelkader was imprisoned, was badly damaged.
A sculpture of an Algerian military hero who resisted colonisation was vandalised in central France just hours before being inaugurated as a symbol of Franco-Algerian reconciliation.
The lower part of the steel sculpture in the town of Amboise, where Emir Abdelkader was imprisoned from 1848 to 1852, was badly damaged on Saturday. The incident occurred during an election campaign dominated by harsh rhetoric on immigration and Islam.
Amboise Mayor Thierry Boutard said he was “ashamed” of those responsible and decided to proceed with the inauguration ceremony regardless.
“My second sentiment is of course one of indignation,” he told the AFP news agency. “This is a day of harmony and unity and this kind of behaviour is unspeakable.”
The sculpture was commissioned to coincide with the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s independence from France, won after a brutal eight-year liberation war that continues to poison relations between the two countries.
It was proposed by historian Benjamin Stora, who was tasked by President Emmanuel Macron with coming up with ways to heal the memories of the war and 132 years of French rule in Algeria.
The silhouette of the Muslim-scholar-turned-military-leader, who resisted French rule but was later feted as a hero in France for his defence of Christians in the Middle East, looks across the Loire river at the castle where he was imprisoned.
Amboise police said they were investigating the incident, which comes two months in advance of a presidential election in which an upstart far-right candidate, Eric Zemmour, has repeatedly grabbed headlines with a campaign bashing Islam and immigration from Africa, including Algeria.
The Amboise castle is seen through a sculpture in tribute to Abdelkader [Guillaume Souvant/AFP]
Algeria’s ambassador to France, Mohamed Antar Daoud, who attended the inauguration, condemned the vandalism as an act of “unspeakable baseness”.
“We have to get beyond that,” he said, assuring that attempts to mend fences between France and Algeria would continue because “there is momentum and a desire on both sides to move forward.”
Ouassila Soum – a 37-year-old French woman of Algerian background, who also attended the inauguration – said the vandalism left her “with a knot in my stomach”.
“It’s a shame and yet it’s not surprising with the rhetoric of hate and the nauseating current atmosphere,” said Soum, hailing the sculpture as “a symbol of the reconciliation between peoples and civilisations”.
Seen as one of France’s worst enemies in the late 19th century, Emir Abdelkader is considered one of the founders of modern-day Algeria for his role in mobilising resistance to French rule.
The rebellion he led failed, however, and he surrendered to French forces who shipped him to France, where he and his family spent four years under guard in Amboise castle.
He later moved to Syria where he won international acclaim for defending Christians during sectarian attacks.
He was awarded the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award, for his role in trying to end the persecution.
The French government said in December it will soon open to the public the most highly classified parts of its national archives about the Algerian war of independence, shedding light on some of the darkest chapters in France’s 20th-century history.